The Tibetan Plateau is home to some of the world’s most charismatic wildlife. Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky spoke of enormous herds of antelope and gazelles and congregations of Wild Yak so huge they turned swathes of the plateau black with their shiny ebony coats. While the great herds of times past are for the most part long gone, the plateau’s sheer remoteness and austerity ensure that it continues to remain a sanctuary.
Many of Asia’s legendary megafauna are here – the Chiru, or Tibetan Antelope, famed for its soft fur and sword-like horns. The enormous Argali, Asia’s “Bighorn Sheep on steroids,” the graceful Kiang, and the near mythical Snow Leopard, the gray ghost gracefully scaling the world’s highest summits.
The region is also home to a stunning concentration of endemic mammals and birds, from tiny mountain voles and dwarf hamsters, to square-headed Tibetan Foxes, Chinese Desert Cats, majestic Blue Sheep, and numerous species of deer, antelope, and gazelle, not to mention the myriad of rosefinches, sandgrouse, accentors, and more. But beneath this exceptional biodiversity is a humble creature many would write off as a mere “rat.”
Cute, right? The Plateau, or Black-lipped Pika in fact, is no rat, but rather a tiny, short-eared Rabbit. A species of pika, it has dozens of relatives all adapted to life in some of the Northern hemisphere’s most rugged mountains, from the familiar American Pika at home in the Western US to the rare, elusive Ili Pika of Northwest China and the Black Pika of Northeast India. Most Pikas are pretty similar, living retiring lives among boulder fields and talus slopes collected piles of vegetation for food and uttering a sharp, piercing note to warn of danger.
But the Plateau Pika is a little different from its relatives. This species lives on the desolate, windswept plains on high plateaus in huge colonies, often thousands strong. We can think of it as Tibet’s answer to the famous Prairie Dogs of the American West. And just as the Prairie Dogs, the Plateau Pika is the key fiber that holds its entire ecosystem together.
The Plateau Pika is a keystone species and ecosystem engineer. It eats huge quantities of grass and seeds, burrows through the high plains, and provides essential prey for the huge numbers of carnivores, small and large, that inhabit the plateau. Without it, the Tibetan Plateau would be completely lifeless.
However, even the humble, and seemingly innumerable Plateau Pika is in trouble. Agricultural expansion into the lower reaches of the plateau, and accompanied activities of tilling and poisoning are killing huge numbers of these pikas. Combined with the untrue belief that these animals overgraze and destroy grasslands (in fact, they only occupy areas grazed by other larger herbivores, spreading seeds to rejuvenate the grass–quite the opposite), they are going extinct across parts of their native range. It’s a sad story with eerie echoes of the decimation of the once abundant Prairie dogs of the American great plains.
Conservation organizations around the world attract funding for charismatic species–the tigers, lions, gorillas, elephants, and rhinos. But below all these majestic creatures are the smaller species that are even more indispensable to their habitats than the larger ones. The Plateau Pika isn’t just a little rabbit, it’s a keystone species holding its ecosystem together. While conserving large mammals is important, we have to try to ensure that these efforts protect the small, but equally or more essential species at the base of the food web too.